I’ve titled this section after the famous Beatles song, not because there is an intertext between Robert Duncan and the Beatles (if there is, I haven’t found it), but because it is a major feature of Duncan’s Passages series of poems, a series that punctuates his well-known collection, Bending the Bow and his final work, Ground Work, to envision love as an outside of currency, economy, and transaction. He achieves this, in his poetry, through his incessant and at times troubling use of intertext, requiring that in order to navigate or make sense of Duncan’s stealing from other texts, all the reader really needs is love. I anticipate that, in the culture of detached, scholarly work, such a claim reads as laughable, but I maintain that a politics of love is the driving force behind the Passages series. Before I discuss how love factors into Duncan’s poetry and his poetics, the fact that such a claim feels out-of-place or discredited in literary studies merits some discussion. I have called the scholarly work behind the study of literature detached, and in doing so have made an observation of the utmost importance to my claim; that is, the emotionally detached nature of literary criticism (largely a patriarchal political nature predicated on the fact that sentiment, characterised by the emotions of love, empathy, and care is typically associated with the feminine) leads scholarly work to ignore these emotions in favour of objectivity, thought, and reason.
It is this observation that leads Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in the final instalment of their Empire trilogy, Commonwealth, to observe that, in philosophy, theory, and even literary criticism, “[w]hat is missing is love” (179). Hardt and Negri claim that “[l]ove has been so charged with sentimentality that it seems hardly fit for philosophical and much less political discourse” (179). Instead, they assert that the normative assumption is that philosophers should “[l]eave it to the poets to speak of love” (179). And indeed, throughout his poetry and his non-fiction, Duncan speaks of love incessantly, but not with the kind of lower-case-r romantic zeal associated with the poet. Rather, Duncan articulates a politics of love strikingly similar to the one Hardt and Negri discuss decades later. That is, for Hardt and Negri, as for Duncan, “love is not, as it is often characterized, spontaneous or passive. It does not simply happen to us as if it were an event that mystically arrives from elsewhere. Instead, it is an action … planned and realized in common” (180). Also like Duncan, Hardt and Negri condemn an identitarian love (a love of the same, if I may borrow from Irigaray), remarkably similar to Duncan’s condemnation of the contemporaneous gay-rights movement in “The Homosexual and Society.” Instead, Hardt and Negri advocate a politics of love that “composes singularities, like themes in a music store, not in unity but as a network of social relations” (184). Thus, a politics of love would entail the search for similarities (as opposed to the differences sought out in an identitarian politics), and would privilege all singularities equally.
Duncan’s poetry and poetics, in light of this politics of love, becomes a search for a commonality, for equality, and for an ethics of love that values each incarnation not for its artistic, but its emotional value. Suddenly Duncan’s preoccupation with minutae becomes less an aesthetic decision and more a political one, and in this politics, language is crucial. As Stephen Collis notes in his essay, “A Duncan Etude: Dante and Responsibility,” for Duncan, “language is the commons: we all have equal rights to enter there – permission to return to the common source.” Collis goes on to observe, as I have quoted previously, that for Duncan the language of poetry occupies an important place in this language of the common: “Poetry is a gift of the givenness of language and no poet holds property rights over it, but owes it his or her service and responsibility. Poetry is radically communal, and the modernist development of collage – the quoting poem parading its ‘reading-writing’ – is one expression of this.” Thus Duncan, in his Passages series, moves freely from source text to his own, misquoting, paraphrasing, and refusing citation in order to foreground the inability to own language, despite the discourses of intellectual property; language is inherently communal.
Anne Day Dewey, in her article “Creeley, Duncan, and the Uses of Abstraction,” makes clear the links between Duncan’s poetry, language, and love. Dewey postulates a “lovers’ common ‘language of daily life’” as “the creative centre from which cosmic order ‘expands,’ redefining the new natural order grounded in the lovers’ harmony” (106). This “private speech community” reinvigorates language with love and with sameness that “gives language new meaning” (106). But, this appears to be largely as aesthetic choice, again, until one considers Dewey’s claim that, for Duncan, “love is the source of change” (104). Moreover, Dewey claims, “[t]his changing perception of language implies a shift in the conception of the public sphere that poetry addresses” (112). Thus it becomes extremely important that, in a footnote to “The Homosexual in Society,” Duncan claims that “[t]he principal point is that the creative genius of a writer lies in his [sic] communication of personal experience as a communal experience” (45). As the personal becomes communal, the poetic becomes political, inciting the reader to relinquish the identitarian politics of difference in favour of a new politics of empathy.
This rejection of identitarian politics is integral to Duncan’s poetics and politics of love. Michael Palmer sees it clearly enacted in Duncan’s work when he writes in the introduction to Ground Work that the “[f]orces formed within the Ego … must be channelled toward the obliteration (or else possible overcoming) of that ‘I’ or self” (x). In “The Homosexual and Society,” Duncan makes clear the link between this poetic choice and its political implications, writing that “only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance” (47). As such, even Duncan’s most overt claims for what we would call gay-rights do not fit into such an identitarian category. Duncan’s gay-rights movement is not concerned with rights, neither is it particularly concerned with the subject position of the gay man. Instead, these overt political statements are driven, more than anything else, by love. “Love is dishonored,” he writes, “where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust” (49).
By shifting the focus of this statement from the identity politics of the gay man in those gay-rights movements he condemns, and towards the love itself (sexual love between members of the same sex, communal love for all individuals), Duncan enacts precisely the kind of politics of love that Hardt and Negri would later posit. “What we are looking for – and what counts in love –” they insist at the end of their chapter on love, “is the production of subjectivity and the encounter of singularities which compose new assemblages and constitute new forms of the common” (186). Ultimately, Duncan’s politics look to compose these new assemblages of love, just as the Passages series of poems looks to create new assemblages as well – new assemblages of readers, of texts, and between the poems themselves. In the sections that follow, I will examine this politics and poetics of communal love, looking at the various ways in enacts itself in the Passages sequence.
It gets articulated, first and foremost, in Duncan’s process of reading-writing, a writing-through process somewhat similar to those used by John Cage and Jackson Mac Low in my previous sections on each author. Duncan envisions his text as being situated in a discursive practice where language is held in common, and all texts are innately joined in “new assemblages” and that work towards articulating “new forms of the common.” With the incessant and often troubling use of quotation, borrowing, and a kind of “plagiarism[i]” that litters the Passages sequence, Duncan argues that texts exist in bonds with each other, and that in this sharing they demonstrate the same communality and public love/trust that he articulates in his politics. It is this “plagiarism” that I will discuss in my next section. Subsequently, my plateaus on Duncan will look to the expressions of this poetics/politics of love in terms of Duncan’s aversion to “integration,” his comprehensions of the role of the subject (both of the reader and the writer) in the text, his explicit anarcho-pacifism, and, finally, his insistence on active readership and his assertion that his poetry directly invites such activity.
[i] As I will discuss in my entry next week, the use of the term plagiarism in my work is inherently problematic because, in order for there to be “plagiarism,” there must also be concomitant conceptions of intellectual property, copyright, and some designation of the ownership of language. This, of course, runs counter to Duncan’s argument that language, and especially poetic language, is held in common and that we all, as readers and writers, have equal rights to it. I use the term still because it demonstrates the degree to which Duncan’s project runs counter to the dominant ideologies of intellectual property and language rights of juridical discourses both when he wrote, and when I do.